Restraint and Death of Disabled Civilians in Texas

The New Statesman reports on deaths in restraint or otherwise in custody of mentally ill civilians in Texas. There’s a new bill pending, the Sandra Bland Act. The paper reports on the bill, but also investigated deaths. Excerpts:

Klessig is one of at least 33 people with histories of mental illness who died after being restrained by police in Texas over the past decade, according to a first-of-its-kind investigation by the American-Statesman of in-custody deaths. Six of those people wielded weapons; the rest were unarmed, records with the Texas Attorney General indicate.


Some of the deaths in police custody also raise serious questions about the way police deal with people struggling with mental illness. In several instances, police appear to have acted contrary to what experts advise — a slower, less confrontational approach to mentally ill people that can prevent violent encounters and death.


State Rep. Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who filed the Sandra Bland Act — named for a mentally ill Illinois woman pulled over in Waller County for a minor infraction and later found dead in her jail cell from an apparent suicide — said the additional training would help officers distinguish between “a person who is in crisis and one who is being aggressive … and resolve the situation in a peaceful manner.”

My take: Such bills will help, but relying on officers to distinguish between disabled and non-disabled civilians will leave many vulnerable. We need core, default, changes.

Here’s the project webpage. I’ll be following it!

Washington Post and Myths about Disability

Disability rights are under attack in DC. Right-wing politicians want to slash Medicaid, the shift towards “school choice” is a blatant attack on special education rights, the ADA is being dismissed as overwhelmed by frivolous lawsuits, and the GOP argues that SSDI is mostly fraud. It’s not, but narratives can overwhelm data so easily.

So it’s a problem that the Washington Post launched a big new series rural disability, emphasizing fraud in Social Security Disability Insurance. Here’s a critique from Daniel Marans (who, incidentally, has been covering the DC Disability rights world more and more for Huffington Post).

Disability rights advocates and a leading Democratic think tank are livid at The Washington Post over a March 30 front-page story on the prevalence of disability benefits in rural America.

The newspaper claimed that “as many as one-third of working-age adults” in rural communities receive disability benefits. But as the Center for American Progress calculated ― and The Huffington Post confirmed by looking at the raw data ― that proportion holds true in only one county in the entire country.

Republicans often use stories like the Post’s to argue that the disability rolls have grown due to abuse from people who can work but simply do not want to. For example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) complained in January 2015 that people were “gaming the system” to receive disability benefits. In fact, the Social Security Administration’s inspector general has estimated that the Social Security Disability Insurance program has a fraud rate below 1 percent.


Telling Time and Conceptual Competence

For the past year or so, Nico’s expressive discussions of time have been emerging. He’ll be in the bath, I’ll ask him he’s done, and he’ll say no. “Two minutes,” I say. “Two minutes,” he repeats. If he wants more and I say, “10 minutes” he might say “15 minutes,” and we negotiate. In general, his grasp of numbers is clear.

He also likes digital clocks. He likes watching the numbers move. He likes countdowns on timers.

What wasn’t clear to me is whether he associated the passage of time on a clock to the “minutes” we discuss so often. I presumed he did. We always try to presume competence. But presumption is different than knowing.

Yesterday, I gave him his iPad right at 7. We leave at 7:30. I said, “20 minutes.” He pointed at the clock over the stove, said, “30 minutes,” and pointed again. I laughed and told him “30 minutes.

I love not only the demonstration of conceptual mastery, but that he deployed in resistance to my arbitrary exercise of authority. He got his 30 minutes.

Mom Charged with Disruption While Trying to Give Insulin to Son

Mom arrives at school to make sure her son has had his insulin, is told that the nurse is late, that she can’t give the injection without the nurse, and that her son has to wait in the office, isolated from her peers.

She gets angry and is eventually charged with disruption. Accounts vary of what happened. I hope the kid is ok and not too upset.

Abortion and Disability: Pro and Anti

NOS Magazine published an anti-choice and a pro-choice piece, back to back, last week. The anti was written by Ivanova Smith and makes this argument:

Even though some in the disability community don’t see this as a modern form of eugenics, I do. Eugenics is advocating for the death of those who are seen as a burden, as weaker or as an inconvenience. I understand there are situations where abortion is necessary evil, like if the mother life is at risk or if she was sexually assaulted However, I don’t feel a person’s life should be a choice because they are seen as a inconvenience or burden. We are human beings. even with the cases above a life was lost and that is sad and should be grieved.

I value my own life and life like me. We all just want to live, like any other human beings. I hope someday people will see this not as partisan issue, but a bipartisan issue that we can all agree on.

The problem here is that Smith mentions eugenics, but doesn’t learn the lesson from it. The history of eugenics is not about providing widespread access to reproductive care to all women, regardless of their race, class, disability, trans or cis … the history of eugenics is about the state asserting control over the bodies of disabled people.

Arguments for the coercive power of the state over reproductive access have never, and will never, work out well for disabled people. It is possible to assert the value of diverse human life without arguing for state coercion of women. It is, in fact, necessary to do so.

Fortunately, Shain Neumeier published a response that more than explains the problems with Smith’s argument. My emphasis:

The hardest thing about the current framing of the abortion debate for disability justice advocates is that it forces us to choose between two of our core convictions: Inherent human worth and bodily autonomy. As a disabled person, an asexual non-binary person who was assigned female at birth, and an activist, I hate the ideas and circumstances that have put these principles in opposition to each other. Still, the choice is easy for me to make. My nearly absolute belief in bodily autonomy means nothing if I’d support forcing a person to remain pregnant and give birth against their will for any reason because of my own opposition to eugenics.

My opposition to eugenics comes as much from the coercion and violence with which it’s been carried out as from the underlying belief that disabled lives aren’t living. Legal or other limits on disability-selective abortion cannot and will not meaningfully address underlying systemic problems such as poverty and structural ableism in healthcare, education and employment that have perpetuated that belief and in doing so pitted disability and reproductive justice against each other in the first place. Their only purpose and effect will be to serve as a first step toward greater and more general restrictions on abortion and other forms of reproductive freedom.

A near-absolute committment to bodily autonomy  is, Neumeier argues, essential to the disability rights movement. Forcing women to give birth will be a wedge used to erode disability rights, not the salvation of disabled people.


Heading downtown today to the Chicago Comic Con … as a journalist. I’ll be meeting with Mikki Kendall to talk to her about diversity and genre and power and twitter and more, heading to a panel, and seeing what I can see.

Follow along with me on twitter and instagram.

There Ain’t No Dark Ages, Part 97!

It’s time for Game of Thrones essays again, I guess, providing easy news hooks to medievalists everywhere.

This one from El Pais is excellent, if in Spanish (but Google translate does ok). It takes about the diversity and complexity of the medieval world, and I love this pullquote:

La unidad de la Edad Media es falsa, como lo es la de la antigua, de la moderna y qué decir de la contemporánea.

Only moderns think the medieval was somehow unified and “dark.” READ THE WHOLE THING!

SUPPORT: Psych Ward Reviews

Psych Ward Reviews is Kit Mead’s “Yelp for Psych Wards,” a crowdsourced database of experiences and outcomes in psychiatric wards around North America. Crowdsources, but not crowdfunded. Mead has been doing this work on their own, and it’s time for that to change. Join me in supporting Psych Ward Reviews on Patreon

Here’s the origin story from The Establishment:

When I arrived at my first psychiatric ward, at George Washington University, I was crying. Instead of helping me to alleviate stress, the hospital gave me sedative pills to make me quiet. I took the pills, terrified of being seen as noncompliant — I had read so many stories about people’s experiences. These places almost always view us as noncompliant if we want alternatives to the treatment plan.

A more recent psych ward stay, at Georgetown Hospital, felt safer; Georgetown staff actually seemed to care, did their jobs to try and make me feel less distressed, and listened to me when I rejected the idea of adding an extra medication. And the medication they gave me finally felt like it was working. When I talked about the difference in treatment quality with my friend Sara Luterman, an autistic advocate and editor of NOS Magazine, their response got me thinking. They said, “There needs to be a Yelp for psych wards.”

It occurred to me that there was not anything quite like a Yelp for psych wards — no system with patient-based ratings gathered in one place. While reviews of psychiatric units of hospitals do exist on Yelp, they are inconsistent and scattered; there was no single review site, created with the explicit purpose of creating change and emboldening psych ward patients, and certainly no such site run by a former patient herself.

The work is incredibly important, will support further research, and might – with support – change the conversation around how we treat acute mental health needs.

Join me in supporting Psych Ward Reviews on Patreon.

Senator Duckworth: Air Travel and Disability

When the horrific United video broke last week, many disabled folks responded with empathy for Dr. Dao, but also by wanting non-disabled folks to realize that air travel has long been horrific for disabled travelers.

Now Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) has gotten into the issue with a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, linking the United incident to her experiences traveling as a disabled woman.

The Senator takes issue with Secretary Chao’s delay of consumer protections. The press release says:

“Under the new rule issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT), air carriers would be required to provide DOT with monthly reports detailing the total number of checked bags, wheelchairs, and motorized scooters, as well as the total number of wheelchairs and mobilized scooters that were mishandled during the reporting period. This rule would ensure that the more than 56 million Americans living with a disability receive protections and rights guaranteed under the Air Carrier Access Act.”

Chao delayed it because, well, because Chao delayed it. The release continues:

“Air carriers must be held accountable for their passengers’ well-being and the quality of their service, and the U.S. Department of Transportation must play an active role in improving accountability,” wrote Senator Duckworth. “Delaying this regulation, which would have improved reporting requirements for mishandled and damaged baggage, may not seem significant, but it could have a profound impact on disabled travelers—many of whom are Veterans like myself. The delay appears to be part of a troubling pattern of decisions by the Trump Administration that show disregard for Americans living with disabilities, and I urge you to reconsider.”

 In her letter, the Senator talks about her own experiences traveling:

“Delaying this critical consumer protection, which would have improved reporting requirements for mishandled and damaged baggage could have a profound impact on disabled travelers – many of whom are Veterans like myself. The delay appears to be part of a troubling pattern of decisions by the Trump Administration that show disregard for Americans living with disabilities and I urge you to reconsider.

Though all travelers deserve information about the frequency with which an airline damages or loses baggage-information this regulation would have helped provide- travelers with disabilities need access to that information. If an airline loses a passenger’s baggage, it is a serious inconvenience. If a wheelchair or motorized scooter is damaged or lost, it represents a complete loss of mobility and independence for that passenger.

I know this first-hand-and this issue is personal for me. In the past year, I have had my personal wheelchair mishandled and damaged several times. I have spent hours filling out paperwork and working with the carrier to replace damaged parts. On a recent trip, I retrieved my wheelchair at the end of the jet bridge, but a titanium rod had been damaged during the flight and my chair literally broke apart while I was sitting in it. The airline was apologetic, but I was left without my primary wheelchair for over five days. I was lucky to have access to additional mobility devices during that time, but many consumers with disabilities do not.”

I’m interested in the extent to which Duckworth takes ownership of disability issues, especially those not linked to Veterans and/or wheelchair users. It’s still developing.

Chao has a pretty good reputation on disability issues according to some of the DC folks I know. We’ll see!

Superbaby and Eugenics: He called my daughter lightning

The parent essay or memoir on discovering one’s child is not typical in some fashion is at once among the most common disability-related genre and one of the most difficult to do well. Of necessity, the essay has to move through ableist ideas about normality, encounter the challenges of having a disabled child, and then come out the other side of that encounter with … wisdom? Hopefully, wisdom. Often, such pieces just turn into gripe sessions about how hard it is to parent. Often, such pieces end up stigmatizing even when they plead for acceptance. Writing about radical transformations of one’s epistemology of the normal is hard to do well!

In Vela, Heather Kirn Lanier has written “Superbabies don’t cry.” It’s one of the best pieces of writing about parenting, let along parenting and disability, that it’s been my pleasure to encounter. It’s long but clear a little time and sit with this one. READ THE WHOLE THING. An excerpt [my emphasis]:

What would happen if we all created SuperBabies? Would we make a SuperRace? Fleets of SuperAdults so smart and wise and strong and nontoxic that they would never get cancer? (But they would of course discover its cure.) By age fifteen, they would teach their teachers. They would outrun all world records. They would eradicate every harmful chemical or they would somehow render all chemicals harmless to SuperBodies. They would, each one, win prestigious awards in their fields, twisting the bell curve into a radiant point of light from which would emanate their stellar, star-like performance. They would never know rejection. They would not know depression. They would not cry, or if they did cry, they would shed tears of existential meaning and fulfillment, reflecting on their infinite successes…

We want a SuperRace because we want to eradicate absolutely everything that terrifies us. We want SuperHumans so we can transcend that thing we are: human. But a SuperHuman would lack that crack in everything through which, as Leonard Cohen sang, the light gets in. There’s something in our suffering that we need. We’ve known this for millennia, and we make it clear in the stories we keep telling. The Buddha gave up his palace and meditated beneath a tree for a week. Jesus of Nazareth said yes to a cross. Our ache is our unfortunate, undeniable doorway. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, says the copper lady with the torch. When we walk into our pain, we sometimes find ourselves on the other side, freed of what we once thought we needed to feel free.

The key to this essay, I think, is tone. It’s light, self-mocking, and then moves that self-mockery into a thorough critique of modern parenting discourse, and then to modern disability/health discourse more broadly, with the knockout:

Culturally, we fear disability and try to push it away. The evidence is in both the personal and the public. [my emphasis]

Women around me worry about getting pregnant by X age or else they risk having a child with chromosomal anomalies. On a podcast, a bestselling author says that holding onto anger and resentment will give you cancer. Kids with amputations are turned into poster children, and we raise money to try to prevent bodies like theirs from existing. “Don’t worry,” a pediatrician said after examining my second child just hours after I’d birthed her. “Lightning didn’t strike twice.” Let me reiterate: he called my daughter lightning. “How did this happen to you?” strangers ask the amputee, the blind man, anybody with a different body, and the interviewee will tell you: It often feels like a coded way of asking How can this not happen to me? When I was in elementary school, the kids in wheelchairs learned in a separate wing of the building. We—the able-bodied kids—never saw them. Hollywood storylines typically assign suicidal tendencies to quadriplegic people (see bestselling novel turned blockbuster hit, Me Before You) despite the fact that the vast majority of people with spinal cord injuries report good qualities of life.

This response to disability is so pronounced in our culture that Princeton ethicist Peter Singer can still keep his job when he argues that children born with disabilities can ethically be killed before a certain age. Even babies with hemophilia. Why? Because, he says, they suffer and cause suffering: [T]he total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.

As always when I share a piece like this, my advice is to READ THE WHOLE THING.